Connie is a single mother of four in a rural area of the Philippines where 85% of the population is unemployed. Celso worked on odd construction jobs, but his passion is looking after vegetables and houseplants. Angelita overcame a gambling problem and now helps bring medical care to Philippine villages.
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Who are these people? They are some of the 200 women and men who a coconut oil brand called Dignity is helping to find dignity in their own lives. The worker who packs each jar of coconut oil writes his name on the top of the jar, thus connecting yoga teachers, health nuts and other global coconut oil consumers with the origin of the product. It is an interesting and effective branding strategy. Florenel signed my jar – unfortunately her bio is not on the website – which makes me think of this mysterious woman in the Philippines who handled the same container of coconut oil that I use in the US to moisturize my chlorinated hair after swimming.
Related: Retailers Drop Coconut Milk Brand Amid Animal Abuse Allegations
The problem with coconut oil
Coconut products have increased in popularity in recent years. But the only controversy I knew of was stories about enslaved monkeys being forced to pick coconuts. I was completely unaware that, as Dignity’s website puts it, “Much of the global coconut industry is corrupt, harming the earth and exploiting workers through modern slavery.”
The way it works is that coconut companies generally contract with large plantations. Small farmers have to work through middlemen who take big cuts for themselves. They offer farmers loans for things like medical bills and school fees for their children and charge usurious interest rates of up to 200%. The farmers rarely come out under. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt.
Dignity calls this “copper slavery.” The word “copra” is a local term for dried coconut meat. It’s a bit like owing your soul to the company store. To make matters worse, the intermediaries never write down the terms of the loan. They trick uneducated farmers into thinking the middlemen are friends, not thieves. Desperate families are vulnerable to human trafficking. “Years of nonprofit work to combat human trafficking revealed that many of the women were trafficked from impoverished rural areas,” according to Dignity’s website.
The value solution
Stephen Freed and the late Don Byker, two men with backgrounds in humanitarian and nonprofit work, founded Dignity Coconuts in 2010. Freed’s son-in-law Erik Olson joined the team in 2012. All were committed to ending sex trafficking and modern-day slavery.
A video on Dignity’s website talks about how they started with a vision of a new kind of business. “What if it had as its central purpose the radical transformation of the society around it?” asked the video. They talked to local residents about a possible product. “They presented something valuable right in their own backyards. Coconuts.”
After four years of research and development, the owners figured out how to use 100% of the coconuts. In addition to harvesting the coconut milk, oil and water, Dignity grinds the shells into a powder that can be made into renewable plastic. The outer shells are woven into erosion protection blankets. Peat, a light, non-fibrous, spongy substance that binds fibers to the husk, is used as a soil conditioner. The coconut processing plant is located in the Bicol region, which includes the southern part of Luzon Island and some nearby island provinces.
Dignity now processes 16,000 coconuts a day from more than 300 coconut farmers. The company employs 200 people at the factory and reckons that when you consider the families of the workers and farmers, they directly affect the livelihoods of 2,000 people in the community.
Dignity’s main product is organic raw coconut oil. It’s a versatile product as you can use it to roast your vegetables, give yourself a fat boost of energy, moisturize your skin and remove your eye makeup. It works well as a facial moisturizer, but may entice your pets to lick you more than you want.
Dignity also makes a vegan, chemical-free coconut lip balm. Its newest product is a dry brush eco beauty kit, which includes fair trade certified brushes made from natural fibers, four ounces of raw coconut oil and a guide that explains how to dry brush your body. This is a way to unclog pores, exfoliate your skin and possibly encourage blood flow to areas of your body.
Diffusion of dignity
Dignity is committed to organic farming and has individually organically certified more than 63,000 trees in the area of the Philippines where it works. The company has also trained local farmers in organic and sustainable practices, which help them grow a better product and get a higher price.
“The message so many poor people hear is that they are somehow less — less intelligent, less capable, less motivated,” the Dignity website said. “Years of believing this can bury a person’s dignity. But it’s just not true. We’re seeing those lies shattered.”
Images via Dignity